“What You Leave Behind” (season 7, episode 25; originally aired 6/2/1999)
When I was younger, I thought of life as a series of immovable objects. Here was home. Here was my bedroom. Here was my mother, my father, my sister; here was the school I went to, the backyard I played in, the books I read, the shadows at night, and the light in the morning. These were not passing fads. These were as solid as stone, and good and bad, they belonged to me. And yet at some point, the stone started to crumble. I can’t remember when that was, exactly. High school, maybe, and I didn’t even realize it at the time. One day the world was a series of unshakable truths, and the next, I was looking to college and fighting with Mom, and my sister and I didn’t speak the same language anymore. One day, home was a place that would always be there. The next, I was leaving.
And now I’m leaving again, just like all of us.
“What You Leave Behind” is an imperfect series finale. Most series finales are. Writers and actors and directors go to great lengths to create a TV world in which each story folds neatly into the next one, and to suddenly have to shut everything down in a way that provides closure to multiple seasons worth of character and plot development isn’t easy. So we grade on a curve. If not every story twist works, if not every beloved cast-member gets the send-off they deserve; if some scenes lean a little too hard on easy emotions; if it’s not exactly what we’ve been dreaming of for however many years it took us to get to this point… we let it go. If enough is right, you let the rest of it go, with the understanding that sometimes, there are things more important than perfect grades.
There are definitely some bumps in this road, though. The end of the Pah-Wraith saga is functional without being in any way good. Winn and Dukat get their just desserts, but neither of their fates are thrilling or insightful. Winn gets burned up after doing the last semi-decent thing of her petty and miserable life (she yells at Sisko to go after the magic book, Pah Wraith Dukat’s only real weakness; the helpfulness of this act is undercut somewhat by the fact that she’d earlier sacrificed Dukat and freed the Pah Wraiths herself), and Dukat is dropped into a firey pit, where he’ll presumably hang out with the demons he loves so dearly until hell freezes over. Given all the build-up, this wasn’t much of a resolution. Just some cheesy special effects, some mustache-twirling villainy, and a final confrontation about as morally complex as a Mighty Mouse cartoon.
But then, this was a plot thread that was never going to deliver, mostly because it didn’t really belong on this show. Deep Space Nine, for all its Prophets and visions and prophecy, was always more interested in the complicated ways that people fit together than it was in god fights and prophecy. By the end, Dukat, Winn, and the Pah-Wraiths were bad guys out of a pulpy fantasy novel. In retrospect, Dukat really died when Ziyal did, when he was broken and conquered and all he’d fought for was lost. Everything that came after was a struggle to find relevance for a character who had reached his natural conclusion. As for Winn, she was compelling primarily when the writers were able to balance her hunger for power against her faith. Once that tension was lost, the doomed Kai had no place left to go.
Thankfully, Marc Alaimo and Louise Fletcher are both talented enough that their scenes together still have some spark, and what happens to Sisko after his confrontation with Dukat is pretty damn important—but put that aside for a second. There are things to do right now, so let’s just move past the bumpy parts and focused on what worked. Because god, the road is so short, isn’t it? Looking back now, it’s like it’s hardly there at all.
The Dominion War is over. It’s over by the three-quarters mark of the finale, and the whole thing is both a tremendous victory and a horrible disaster, which is probably the most you can hope for from a war. The start of the episode has everyone gearing up to join Sisko on the new Defiant, for one last big push into Cardassian territory. It’s a nice way to check in with the ensemble before the fireworks begin, and for a while at least, the finale does a fine job of being an ending without expending too much effort in reminding us that the end is coming. Sure, we find out that O’Brien has been offered a teaching job back on Earth, and that he’s going to take it, which is very much a finale sort of thing to have happen. But there’s no real conflict in this discovery, just O’Brien’s reluctance to tell Bashir. Most everyone else is focused on the problems at hand: winning the war and surviving.
There isn’t much in the way of grand speechifying or shocking twists, either. The writers even tweak our noses with some faux foreshadowing from Kasidy: “Reports of my death have been exaggerated… but not by much,” she tells Jake, and it plays like an in-joke after all that worry over the Prophet’s earlier warnings. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Kasidy died, ha-ha. But c’mon. She isn’t going to die. DS9 had its darkness, but it was never the kind of show that would kill off a pregnant woman, especially not in the last episode. There’s a strange sort of peace that runs throughout the finale, and Kasidy’s comments fit into that peace. Almost like the writers were playing at being Prophets themselves, leaving us clues to comfort us that things may get bad, but they won’t be hopeless. So hold on and enjoy, and maybe bite your nails a bit when things get suspenseful—but no one’s going to break your heart. At least, no more than necessary.
Okay, let’s get on point here: our heroes win the war. And that’s good, right? The final space battle is a doozy, and the finale manages the neat trick of pushing victory back as far as it can go without turning it into a loss. It wouldn’t have made sense if the Federation had lost the war now; it would’ve been a lousy ending for the series, and narratively speaking, given how much Sisko and the others have given to win, failure just wouldn’t have worked. Yet there were moments here and there when a win seemed nearly impossible. The new Defiant takes heavy damage, and the combined might of the Breen, Jem’Hadar, and Cardassian fleet appears unstoppable. It’s a neat trick to put a sure conclusion in doubt, but the show manages it, so that when victory finally does arrive (with the Cardassians turning on their former allies), it’s all the more satisfying.
Not completely satisfying, though. If Sisko and the others’ struggles in space are gripping, Kira, Damar, and Garak’s fight on Cardassia comes perilously close to despair. There are a handful of deaths in “What You Leave Behind,” but Damar’s is the only one that really stings. I was sure that he’d survive the whole mess, survive and end up being the one to raise the flag of a new Cardassia out of the rubble of the old. But he gets shot down in a firefight as his small band of rebels is breaking into Dominion headquarters. It’s sudden, although not so sudden that we don’t realize he’s gone. A season ago, I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but I was sad when he died. It’s an earned death (he did murder Ziyal, after all), but still nothing to cheer about.
But then, there’s not a lot to cheer about on Cardassia even once the Female Changeling surrenders and the war finally ends. The damage starts early, when Weyoun has a Cardassian city leveled in order to punish Damar and the rebels for standing up to the Dominion. Two million gone, just like that, and it’s a drop in the bucket by the end; before Odo merges with the Founder and she calls off her troops, the Jem’Hadar manage to murder over 800 million Cardassians, most of them civilians. It’s a level of destruction that robs the victory of any sweetness. (Not that this bothers Martok. Man, I’m gonna miss Martok.) In his final scene with Bashir—and his final scene of the series—Garak can barely control his rage and sorrow over all that’s been lost, from his beloved Mila to an entire way of life. It’s possible to believe what Bashir tells Garak, that the Cardassians will recover and rebuild, but it’s fitting that Garak’s last act is to remind us that optimism only goes so far. 800 million dead is a number so staggering that no good faith or hope can really defeat it.
Like I said, though, this isn’t a downer finale. In the end, somehow, Odo finds a way to reach the Female Changeling, and convince her to stand trial for her crimes. If we weren’t still squinting, I’d say this reversal was a little too easy; the Founder had spent every appearance in this last season insisting with ever increasing fury that the Dominion would win the war, even if she had to kill everyone in her path to do it. In linking with her, Odo somehow reversed every major position she had, almost instantaneously, and she seems somehow different in her final scenes—not in a creepy way, but at peace with everything. The only other times we’ve seen her at peace was when she was trying to convince Odo to turn his back on his friends.
So maybe that’s why she finally gave in. The war was lost anyway, and here was Odo, with a cure for the sickness that was killing her people, and a promise that he would return to the Great Link. Maybe that was enough to change her mind. The fact that it all happens so quickly, and with such seeming ease, makes it a curiously deflating resolution. All this time, the Female Changeling had been the biggest boogeyman in an army of boogeymen. Her defeat should’ve been spectacular, cathartic; it should’ve allowed Garak the chance to satisfy his vengeance, at least. Instead, it’s more like a sigh.
It’s okay, though. It’s not really what’s important. What matters more is Odo’s decision to return to his people, and his final goodbye to Kira. I’m still not sure what to feel about Odo leaving the solids behind. (I do know that I never stopped thinking “solids” was a silly term.) There’s something so forlorn about it, so limiting and, from a certain perspective, weirdly defeatist; it’s like watching someone escape a cult, build his own life, and then ultimately give up everything he’d built and retreat back to the womb of assimilation. But the event itself is treated in a positive, if bittersweet, light, and somehow, the fact that Odo’s bringing his people the cure that will save them all makes the whole thing easier to take. I’m not sure why Odo suddenly decided that he could live without Kira, but their final moments together are lovely. You could read this as an over-simplification of all of Odo’s time on the station, an easy answer to his quest for identity, and I couldn’t argue with you. I think it works, though. I don’t even have to squint that much. In the end, sometimes you just want to go where you belong.
I said we were going to talk about Sisko’s fate, right? Because I was not expecting that. It’s abrupt, and, on terms of plot, it feels perilously close to a cheat. Sisko gets everything he wants, but then finally realizes his purpose is to shove Dukat over a cliff; he does this, and wakes up in the white zone (for loading, unloading, and spiritual education), with some vague promises from Prophet Sarah that he has much more still to do. Later Sisko appears to Kasidy in a vision, to assure her that he isn’t dead, and that he will probably definitely return at some point, “maybe a year from now, maybe yesterday,” which, as scheduling goes, isn’t even enough for an eVite. It’s odd, and more than a little like the writers threw up their hands and said, “Fuck it, let’s do some mystical shit,” and tossed their protagonist into the ether.
Yet emotionally, it works, because it’s ambiguous and uncertain and you just don’t know what happens next. It’s not hopeless; Sisko seems reasonably confident that he’ll come back to Kasidy eventually. (According to Memory Alpha, this was at Avery Brooks’ request. The original filming script left Sisko dead, never to return, and Brooks didn’t like the idea of a black man leaving his wife pregnant with his child.) But when he does return, it will be different. In technical terms, you can think “Sisko died, and he’s a ghost, and that’s that,” and it’s not much of an ending. But if you think of it as something that’s still happening, something that will, on a day we’ll never see, become something new… It’s not bad. Sisko was an angry man for a long time, but he doesn’t look angry in his final scene. He looks like a man about to embark on some great new journey. So ignore the details that don’t work, and go with what matters to you. Hold on to it tightly, and hope that it lasts.
There’s more to talk about—those goofy flashbacks that don’t so much tug on the heartstrings as they do rip them out of your chest; Quark’s scene with Vic while he waits nervously for his friends to come home; Quark and Odo’s final goodbye, which manages to be unsentimentally sentimental in a way that suits both characters perfectly; Worf becoming the Federation ambassador to Kronos, which is, all things considered, the best place in the world for him; Ezri and Bashir heading off to the Battle and Thermopylae; and so on. That’s the thing about leaving, though. You keep grasping at reasons to stay for just a little longer, because it’s dark out there, and a little colder than you were expecting, and what if we forget something. What if there’s a moment or a performance, or a smile that we don’t acknowledge, what if we leave out the one piece that would keep us warm for the long road ahead.
But it’s time to go. So here: I cried watching this. I’m a soft touch, so that’s no surprise. What is surprising is what made me cry. Out of everything—Damar’s death, Odo and Kira, the end of a regular Thursday gig, whatever the hell happened to Sisko—what hit me the hardest was Bashir and O’Brien saying goodbye. It’s such a small thing, comparatively. Nobody’s dead, and they’ll see each other again, I’m sure. It matters, though, and there’s something remarkable in that; how in the midst of all the catastrophes and conclusions, something as minor as two friends letting each other go was important enough to make me weep. I mean, we’ve watched these guys meet and not really like each other, and then like each other and be kind of dorky about it, and was never epic, y’know? It was never something you’d sell in sweeps week, or put on a commemorative plate. Yet in all the extravagant chaos, this is the part that made the most sense: people spending time together until it’s circumstances change. Because this happens all the fucking time. You find people, and you get to know them, and you love them a little. Hell, you love them a lot. And then, sooner or later, you go east, and they go west, and what you had is gone, and there’s no way to get it back.
That’s what this finale is about to me. Not the end of the war, or the death of some bad guys, but the reminder that there are so many stories that go on without us. Sisko, with the Prophets. O’Brien as a professor. Kasidy raising a child. Kira running the station. Jake staring out the window. Garak surviving. Quark hating change, running his bar, running his scams. Bashir and Ezri maybe getting married, or maybe just having a lot of great sex and burning out on each other. We won’t know what happens next, because it’s all made-up anyway; but really, we won’t know because that’s what life is. Life is the best friend from high school whose last name you can’t remember. Life is the ex-girlfriend who kept a piece of your soul, and it burned until you realized there were so many pieces left you didn’t miss it anymore. Life is the cousin who dies and maybe you saw her at Christmas that one year and maybe you didn’t. Life is the status updates you don’t understand, the phone calls you forget to return, the coffee dates that don’t lead to anything more than a caffeine high. Life is knowing that however hard you try, however wide you open your arms, in the end, you’ll leave everything behind you. Life is always leaving. And always leaving means that every friend you make is just one more goodbye.
It’s worth it, though. In the end, little else is.
Thank you very much for reading.
-Lewiston, ME 1/9/2009—5/8/2014